“What a delicious thing writing is — not to be you anymore but to move through the whole universe you are talking about. Take me today, for instance: I was a man and woman, lover and mistress; I went riding on a fall afternoon beneath the yellow leaves, and I was the horse, the leaves, the wind, the words he and she spoke, and the red sun beating on their half-closed eyelids, which were heavy with passion.” – Gustave Flaubert
Writing is acting. It is the channeling of imagined personalities so we can transpose them into words. It’s an endeavor that requires many skills, which is why it can be so frustrating when we can’t pull it off the way we want, and why it is so bone-deep gratifying when it all comes together.
I will confess to having never been tempted to participate in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal of dashing off a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days struck me as gimmicky and pointless.
But I may have to change my mind. Though a recent Publishers Weekly article on NaNoWriMo is entitled “How to Succeed at NaNoWriMo,” I’m more interested in WHY I should participate.
Turns out the article zooms right in on that concern, and it got my attention:
NaNoWriMo’s pressing time constraints leave little time for polishing and perfecting—and that’s perhaps the point.
Marissa Meyer, whose novels Cinder and Scarlet (Square Fish, 2014) began as NaNoWriMo drafts, says the beauty of the program is that it “forces you to silence that internal editor and just get something written. If you’re telling yourself that it’s OK to be writing something bad because you can always come back and fix it later, it takes a lot of the pressure off.”
Ouch. That hit home. That internal editor remains one of my biggest writing roadblocks. I can’t peck out two sentences on the laptop without having to go back and proof what little I’ve done. I know I’m supposed to complete my manuscript before getting all editorially and nit-picky, but I succumb every time to the temptation to tweak what I’ve written. And that slows me down, which impedes the completion of my manuscript, and a completed first draft, despite its inevitable ugly spots, is an accomplishment that will spur me on to sticking to the whole process.
I used to dismiss flash fiction as a gimmick, too, until I tried my hand at it and discovered the rigor and discipline it takes to complete quality pieces. It isn’t easy, and that’s the point. There’s no doubt writing flash fiction has improved my writing by forcing me to say what I want to say in fewer, stronger words. You can judge for yourself here and here.
So look out, NaNoWriMo 2015. Here I come.
There’s an old saying that nothing bad can happen to a writer because it’s all inspiration. We’ve heard about writers pouring their hearts onto the page to confront and expel inner demons. Edgar Allen Poe. H.P. Lovecraft. Ernest Hemingway. For them, writing was therapy.
Now we have science that confirms that insight:
It is now widely accepted that stressful experiences — whether divorce or final exams or loneliness—have a negative effect on immune function, but this was a highly controversial notion at the time of Pennebaker’s study. Building on his protocols, a team of researchers at the Ohio State University College of Medicine compared two groups of students who wrote either about a personal trauma or about a superficial topic. Again, those who wrote about personal traumas had fewer visits to the student health center, and their improved health correlated with improved immune function, as measured by the action of T lymphocytes (natural killer cells) and other immune markers in the blood. This effect was most obvious directly after the experiment, but it could still be detected six weeks later.
Numerous experiments have since replicated Pennekbaker’s findings. Writing experiments from around the world, with grade-school students, nursing-home residents, medical students, maximum-security prisoners, arthritis sufferers, new mothers, and rape victims, consistently show that writing about upsetting events improves physical and mental health. This shouldn’t surprise us: Writing is one of the most effective ways to access an inner world of feelings that is the key to recovering from genuine trauma and everyday stress alike.
The goal is a sound mind in a sound body. It’s not either/or. I’ve long felt that Cartesian dualism is as wrong-headed as it is mechanistic and dehumanizing, and that living and feeling and thinking as a whole person rather than as a ghost in a machine is the path to fulfillment. That theme often inspires my writing.
Rather than rejecting the body and nature as lowly, and the mind as somehow imprisoned in dumb matter, we need to grasp the unity of both and live — and write — accordingly.
You don’t want to miss the Rolling Stone interview with Stephen King. Even if horror isn’t your cup of espresso, the insights into the creative mind are priceless. Check out King’s confession about the fears that stoke his nightmares:
The one that recurs is that I’m going to be in a play, and I get to the theater and it’s opening night and not only can I not find my costume, but I realize that I have never learned the lines.
How do you interpret that?
It’s just insecurity – fear of failure, fear of falling short.
You still fear failure after all these years of success?
Sure. I’m afraid of all kinds of things. I’m afraid of failing at whatever story I’m writing – that it won’t come up for me, or that I won’t be able to finish it.
King’s On Writing is within reach even as I peck at the keyboard. It’s one I highly recommend. The first half is a confessional/autobiography. Before I’d read it, I had no idea of King’s alcohol and cocaine addictions. How he managed to survive them and end them is a heart-wrenching tale. You cannot help but be moved by King’s honesty and courage.
The second half focuses on the craft of writing, and is a classic of the genre, packed with practical advice. Well worth your money and time.
Here’s a bit of winning advice from Ryan Lanz over at A Writer’s Path:
A lot of new writers–I was certainly guilty of this, myself–think that every sentence needs to be a colorful tapestry of words strung together, and that everything needs to “pop” to hold the reader’s attention. Why else do most new writers try to think of anything other than the simple “said” as a dialogue tag (more on dialogue tags here)? I was quick to discover that there is beauty in a short, bleak sentence. In fact, after a string of medium to long sentences, they are often my favorite ones to write.
Ryan is right on target. Consider Rembrandt’s Man in a Golden Helmet. The stark background not only sets off the dazzling helmet, but subtly highlights a face full of equally dark memories. The contrast actually supplements the unity of the composition.
This is a lesson I have to keep learning over and over. Back in my early days as a fiction scribbler, I couldn’t get published. After making a perfect pest of myself quizzing editors why they didn’t accept my submissions, one finally told me my descriptions were getting in the way of the plot and characterization. (Maybe that came from overdosing on T.C. Boyle and H.P. Lovecraft.) Anyway, the perfect tonic for my affliction was in reading lots of Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway. I even typed out Hemingway’s texts to see what it felt like to produce such sentences, and started trying to write the next sentence. My acceptance rate bloomed – though I still get occasional rejections. That’s just the way it is.
I’m fascinated by tales of devotion to others, or risking all for a cause or a loved one, which inspires much of my fiction. Dr. Edward O. Wilson has made a career out of studying that mysterious, burning force that drives heroes and martyrs of all shapes and sizes — and species.
Wilson was born in Birmingham, Alabama. He’s a bug man. That’s what he calls himself. But he’s not an exterminator. He’s a scientist who studies bugs. Dr. Wilson is a Harvard professor who founded the study of sociobiology, which focuses on the biological basis of behavior. Wilson wanted to explain altruism, that is, the sacrifice of oneself for others. Why do soldier ants fight and die for their colony? Why do parents risk their lives for their children? Why do warriors risk their lives for their tribe? Wilson’s research has influenced not only the fields of biology and ecology, but also psychology, sociology, and political theory.
In Naturalist, Wilson’s autobiography, he confesses that his scientific study of altruism is spurred by deep emotional reactions to unexpected displays of valor:
I have a special regard for altruism and devotion to duty, believing them virtues that exist independent of approval and validation. I am stirred by accounts of soldiers, policemen, and firemen who have died in the line of duty. I can be brought to tears with embarrassing quickness by the solemn ceremonies honoring those heroes. The sight of Iwo Jima and Vietnam Memorials pierces me for the witness they bear of men who gave so much, and who expected so little in life, and the strength ordinary people possess that held civilization together in dangerous times. (p. 25)
I will confess to the same. My eyes stubbornly go misty when I watch Saving Private Ryan. Same with 300. Heck, even Bruce Willis puts me to tears every time I see the scene in Armageddon when he realizes he must sacrifice himself to save the human race.
Anyway, here’s to the real heroes. God bless, fellas.
Last week, I noted the similarity between acting and writing. In this interview with the New York Times book review, Bruce Springsteen discusses the literary influences on his songwriting and his life:
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
One would be difficult, but the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.
For more insight into Springsteen’s worldview, check out Sins Unatoned: The Gothic Imagination of Bruce Springsteen.
“Writing is where the real center of my integrity lies. I never write for money. I only act for money.” Robert Shaw
A member of the critique group I’m in was recently in a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. That got me to thinking about the relationship between acting and writing. After all, when you’re concentrating on describing a character’s feelings or writing authentic dialog, you’re channeling a character the same way an actor would. It takes me time and effort to “get into” a character’s head, even if I’ve been working on a piece for some time.
Robert Shaw, shown above as Captain Quint from Jaws, was one of my favorites. Like George C. Scott (a failed writer who became an actor!), Shaw always brought a titanic and menacing presence to the characters he portrayed. Who could forget his role as Grant, the ultimate cold-blooded assassin in From Russia With Love? In addition to Shaw’s all-too-short acting career, he also penned some fine novels and plays.
Other writers who were also actors include William Shakespeare, Yukio Mishima, and Orson Scott Card. And Tom Hanks just released a book of short stories. I’m sure there are others.
Over at Electric Lit, Amber Sparks argues that while writers usually claim one of the highbrow greats as their stylistic model, they often fail to give proper due to the lowbrow authors who inspired them to become writers. She cites authors willing to admit to the influence of pulp writers in their early careers:
“Romance novels, horror novels, thrillers. Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, everything V.C. Andrews wrote, Danielle Steel: I devoured it all,” says Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth. “Those ‘trashy’ books taught me how to write story, character, and created my lifelong need for drama, conflict, and my belief that every story, no matter what genre or style, needs to make the reader feel as if a lot is ‘at stake.’” And Peter Tieryas, author of Bald New World, says, “I devour and gorge on lowbrow entertainment, from the maligned Waterworld and the original Dawn of the Dead, to comics like Legends of the Dark Knight and X-Force, to K-pop and Tupac, and of course video games. They play with the tropes, or establish all new ones, and being unhinged from traditional restrictions, push the medium, teaching me that I can do the same.”
After all, says Sparks, “we’re all of us storytellers, trying to retell that first and perfect tale that started it all.”
I couldn’t agree more. In grade school, my vocabulary was three grades ahead of my classmates thanks to Marvel Comics. (Don’t ask about my math skills!) And as an English major, I continued to enjoy Robert E. Howard, H.R. Wakefield, and Robert Heinlein as much as Hemingway and Shakespeare.
As Sparks says, they’re all storytellers. And that’s what I want to be.